It may have dropped like a bombshell, the slotting of all three former Indian Wells champions into the same quarter.
And as if Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal did not make the bottom of the draw heavy enough, there was also Juan Martin del Potro plus, for good measure, the two young stars tipped for future Grand Slam success, Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev.
Stir into the quarter the recent Dubai finalist Fernando Verdasco, and draw him against Nadal at the earliest opportunity, and the intrigue was complete. After all, Verdasco had won three of his last five meetings against Nadal, including a five-set thriller a year ago at the Australian Open.
The draw, though, gradually threw up a few different interesting combinations. Who expected teenager Taylor Fritz, here as a new father, to come back from a set and a break down to Beat No6 seed Marin Cilic? And that set a battle of the generations against 33-year-old Malik Jaziri.
Who anticipated such a strong showing for that most elegant of shots, the one-handed backhand? Federer and Grigor Dimitrov carried the flag in the bottom half, but five more men did so in top half: a total of seven, four of them among the top 12 seeds.
Unusual, too, was so many lefties among the 32 remaining players: again, seven of them. Two even played one another: Yes, Nadal and Verdasco.
A decade ago, it may have been noteworthy that 11 of the last 32 were aged over 30—most of them considerably so, with Federer leading the way at 35. But so durable and fit has the older generation become that this is no longer such a the rarity.
So where, among all these noteworthy statistics, was one to really stand out from the crowd as the third round funnelled its way to the fourth?
In the top half, one such story was that of Yoshihito Nishioka. Indian Wells looked all over for him when he lost in the last round of qualifying to Elias Ymer, but the 21-year-old got a second bite of the cherry as a lucky loser. What then were the chances he would again face Ymer in the first round—and beat him?
Not content with that, the Japanese man, who is riding at a career-high ranking of No70, took on No19 seed Ivo Karlovic, who stands a full foot and a half taller and weighs almost a 100 pounds more, and is only just short of twice the smaller man’s age. Nishioka beat him, 6-4, 6-3.
His was, then, already a David and Goliath story, but now he faced a still bigger challenge in the shape of Tomas Berdych.
The No13 seed, 10 years older than the slight Japanese man, almost a foot taller and 60 pounds heavier, was undoubtedly the heavyweight in this encounter, too, and when Berdych took a 6-1, 5-2 lead—with Nishioka needed treatment on his back—it looked a done deal. But Nishioka fought back, fending off a match-point as he served at 4-5, to force a second set tie-break, which went on to win it, 7-6(5).
After a swift exchange of breaks in the third set, the young lucky loser broke again, as the serving of Berdych continued to underperform—he would hit just half of first serves into play through the match. Nishioka held his advantage to the winning line, 6-4, after 2hrs21mins, to pull off one of the upsets of the tournament so far and seal his first Masters fourth-round run.
Just how much he has left for the next test, No3 seed Stan Wawrinka, who beat Philipp Kohlschreiber, 7-5, 6-3, is uncertain. He admitted:
“Down 2-5, I tried to find a way, and then I think he gave me chances. So I found a way, and then just kept trying every point. My body felt like I cannot move, but I just stayed focused and tried to fight.”
At the top of the same half, another unlikely scenario had emerged. Few expected that world No1 Andy Murray would lose in his first match. After all, he had come to Indian Wells in good time to acclimatise to the conditions, and with the Dubai title in his pocket. But lose he did, to the big, rangy Canadian Vasek Pospisil, who chivvied and chased him with big, aggressive tennis to a straight-sets scoreline.
Pospisil, though a former top-30 player, had come through qualifying, and now he would meet another qualifier, Dusan Lajovic, who beat the impressive Frances Tiafoe in his opener and then No30 seed Feliciano Lopez. So for the first time since 2011, there were multiple qualifiers in the Indian Wells third round—and they played one another.
It would become a long and compelling battle between the 26-year-olds that remained on a knife-edge until its two-and-a-half-hour conclusion as the heat of the afternoon sank into the long shadows of early evening.
Pospisil continued to ply his big game, transitioning to the net at every opportunity, where his doubles expertise won him many points. But the Serb, whose one-handed backhand was more than a match for the sliced two-hander of the Canadian, stayed with him to a first-set tie-break. Pospisil edged that, 7-6(4), with his 16th point won at the net—but there was a lot more to come in this match.
Pospisil seemed to take control with a break in the fifth game of the second, only to double fault on break-back point. With his confidence dented and his first serve dipping to 45 percent, the Canadian was then broken to love in the eighth game as Lajovic, grown wise to his opponent’s tactics, slotted a backhand cross-court pass. The Serb survived four deuces but got the set, 6-3.
The third was as tight as could be, neither giving any quarter for seven games. Then Pospisil got the breakthrough to serve for the set, 5-3—only to be broken to love again. The Serb almost came unstuck with some bold hitting to the lines, forced to save one match point, but he was rewarded with a hold, then broke, and served out the one-hour set for the win, 7-5.
For qualifier Lajovic, too, this was a first Masters fourth-round run, and the story may not be done yet. He next plays Pablo Carreno Busta, who had a walkover against Roberto Bautista Agut, and the Serb beat the Spaniard in their only previous match—as it happens, in a 7-5 in deciding set.
At the bottom of this half, the seedings have held firm, however—give or take one lucky loser.
Dominic Thiem beat Mischa Zverev, 6-1, 6-3, in under an hour. He next plays No10 seed Gael Monfils, who beat No20 seed John Isner, 6-2, 6-4, in only 68 minutes. The pair of over-30s had split their last eight matches, 4-4, but the Frenchman has enjoyed a surge in form over the last few months, reaching a career-high No6 at the end of 2016. Thiem, though, has beaten Monfils in their two previous matches.
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